The fundamental flaw of futuristic vehicle technology came home to me with a bang in a parking lot in Johannesburg. And I wasn’t even in the car.
The Ford Fusion 1.5 EcoBoost is a superb combination of the traditional luxury sedan of the past decade and the early days of the connected car of tomorrow. The comfort and silence inside the car leaves one almost detached from the road, making it possible to dull the torture of traffic and idiot drivers.
The technology built into the car is startling, given the common view of Ford as being an everyman vehicle with only the basics in place. A system called Active Park Assist finds parking spaces and steers the vehicle in. As the brochure tells it: “Simply put the car into gear and take your hands off the wheel. All you have to do is work the accelerator and brake. It even steers you out of your parking, hands-free.”
And yes, it works. The bane of the learner driver, parallel parking, solved by high-tech.
The Blind Spot Information System activates indicator lights on the side mirrors if a vehicle has snuck into your blind spot while you’re changing lanes. “So you can see what you can’t see,” Ford cutely puts it.
The Lane Keeping Aid adds to this category of safety: it monitors road markings, and detects if the vehcile is unintentionally moving out of its lane – i.e. when the indicator isn’t on. A vibrating steering wheel, as if driving over a corrugated surface, makes for a very tactile warning. If you’re still verring out of your lane without having indicated, the system applies steering torque to urge you back into your lane.
If that isn’t enough, Active City Stop watches out for that moment when the driver becomes too detached from the traffic while stuck in the kind of bumper-to-bumper situation where the car’s entertainment system just begs to be explored. It only works in slow traffic: at less than 30km/h, it detects a sudden stop by the vehicle in front of the car, and applies brakes. No, it isn’t artificial intelligence. It is more of an advanced version of a thermostat in a fridge or toaster triggering automatic responses.
That gives us an inkling of what will be possible when we bring real artificial intelligence to bear on vehicle technology. It also goes some way to explain why there is so much hope for the self-driving car of the near future, and the role it can play in reducing accidents. The Ford Fusion 1.5 EcoBoost is an ideal bridge to this future.
But there is one thing the technology still cannot do: deal with idiot drivers. And let’s face it, we’re all idiot drivers somewhere along the road.
In my case, it was an idiot parker. Or someone trying to manoeuvre out of a tight parking spot without watching where they were going, which is a synonym for an idiot parker. This resulted in a not-so-neat modification of the Ford Fusion’s rear end, and a visit to the nearest police station to report an accident.
This was doubly sad, since the Fusion is also fitted with a rear-view parking camera. It not only provides a clear view of what lurks behind, but also has proximity sensors that beep when you get too close to the object. The beeping intensifies as you get closer, and automatically turns down the music so that the noise of the beeps can penetrate your head-banging to Beethoven or Iron Maiden.
The problem with the technology is that it only works when you are using it. Once the car is parked and switched off, the safety systems go to sleep. Which means that your car is at the mercy of the idiot parker.
On the open road, it also means that, as high-tech as the safety systems may be on your car, you are still at the mercy of the inadequate specs of other cars or their drivers.
That is the fundamental flaw of the self-driving car of the future. As long as there are human-propelled vehicles on the road, and as long as idiot drivers keep being drivers or idiots, the safest cars in the world may still be subject to the risks and perils of the rest.